Washington, D.C. | February 25, 2023 – It is with great and profound sadness that we announce the passing of ADC’s founder, U.S. Senator James George Abourezk, a beloved member of our community. James passed away yesterday evening in South Dakota, at the age of 92, surrounded by family and loved ones. James founded ADC in 1980, serving as our first chairperson. Under his leadership and vision, ADC became and remains the preeminent grassroots organization representing Arab Americans.
James was born in South Dakota in 1931, the son of Lebanese Arab immigrants. Between 1948 and 1952, James served in the United States Navy during the Korean War. Subsequently, he earned a degree in civil engineering. Later, he earned a J.D. degree from University of South Dakota School of Law.
James was elected as a United States Representative from South Dakota in 1970. He served in that role for one term before being elected as a United States Senator for South Dakota in 1972, where he served until 1979. James made history as our nation’s first Arab American Senator.
ADC Chairman Dr. Safa Rifka said, “The community has lost a true leader and generational figure for Arab Americans. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, children, and family. Jim has left behind a legacy, and we will continue to honor and build on it here at ADC. I will forever be thankful for his leadership, guidance, and perseverance. He was always an integral part of our community, significantly contributing to the story of Arab Americans. He was a generous trailblazer, paving the way for others with his leadership. Jim always stood for what is right, and he always stood steadfast for justice here at home and abroad.”
Abed Ayoub, ADC National Executive Director said, “We ask that you keep the Abourezk family in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. Generations of Arab Americans, including myself, have benefitted from his work and legacy. Jim always stood for what is right, and advanced the rights of our community with adventure, compassion, humor, and love. At ADC we will honor his memory and legacy by continuing to work towards the noble mission he laid out for the organization over 40 years ago.”
As Senator, James was a voice for justice and equity, incredibly influential in advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples in the United States. He was a driving force in creating the American Indian Policy Review Commission and the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, serving as a chair for both. In his efforts to represent tribes in Congress in working toward improving federal relations, he authored two landmark pieces of legislation, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.
After his departure from the Senate, James was driven to create ADC after the FBI Abscam operation, in which FBI agents impersonated Arabs in stereotypical and offensive fashions. He mobilized the Arab American community, spearheading our nation’s first grassroots movement dedicated to advocating for the civil rights of Arab Americans. His historic efforts helped laid the groundwork for the anti-Arab and anti-Islamophobic activism we witness today.
Statements From ADC Leadership Through The Years:
Abdeen Jabara, Former Vice-Chairman and President: “I loved Jim, he was a mentor and a friend. He gave us guidance and direction. His death is a loss for humanity.”
Albert Mokhiber, Former ADC National Executive Director: “Jim was unique in so many ways, from his strict adherence to civil and human rights for all, to his true representation of his constituents in Congress. His vision in founding ADC and grassroots organizing not only served to safeguard the Arab-American community but also led to the empowerment of generations that followed. He was stubborn, but for the truth and compassionate for the underprivileged, be they Native Americans or Palestinian refugees. He was as proud of his Lebanese roots as he was his South Dakotan upbringing. Today we lost a dear friend and mentor, a brave leader and the best that America has and hopefully will continue to offer.”
Dr. Ziad Asali, Former ADC National President: “Arab Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Senator Abourezk. He gave instant national credibility to ADC , which he founded in 1980. The born leader and committed civil rights advocate set the standard for Arab American organizations to keep.“
Mary Rose Oaker, Former ADC National President: “James was a visionary who understood that Arab Americans needed to be represented to protect their civil rights, and the founding of ADC was an enormous accomplishment by Jim. I am proud to be associated with ADC and his legacy. I am very sad for the loss of a great humanitarian and protector of our rights. My thoughts are with his family during these difficult times.”
Kareem Shora, Former National Executive Director: “Sen. Abourezk was an empowering leader who always instilled a strong sense of identity and unity each time I met him during my tenure with ADC. Sen. Abourezk never hesitated to speak truth-to-power and always took proactive steps to ensure that the Arab-American community’s voice was institutionalized within the civil rights movement. His legacy lives on in all of us as we continue to grow what he started.”
Sara Najjar Wilson, Former ADC National President: “I am deeply proud of James Abourezk for his outstanding service to our country as a United States Senator and for starting and being the first leader of ADC. He has made all of us proud of not only being Americans, but also being of Arabic heritage. It is with utmost fondness and gratitude that I will always remember James Abourezk, and pray that memories of him will live on forever.”
Warren David, Former ADC National President: “As a young activist in Detroit in 1980, during the formation of the organization (ADC), James Abourezk served as a source of inspiration to me and many Arab Americans. During a time when discourse regarding the negative portrayal of Arabs and the injustice faced by Palestinians were scarce, he acted as a pioneer who instilled a sense of immediacy in the Arab American community. He was a trailblazer in this regard.”
Samer Khalaf, Former ADC National President: “James Abourezk’s legacy will continue through his contributions to our community, leadership, and unwavering dedication to social justice and equality. He was a true inspiration to us all and will be remembered as a champion of the Arab-American community and the broader American society.”
Rest in peace, James Abourezk. Your legacy will never be forgotten.
“If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” Gibran Khalil Gibran